Do philosophers dream of saving electric cats?

by John Holbo on November 6, 2014

I have a horrible cold. Getting better, but as of Monday fever was pretty bad, thanks for your concern. I was trying to get some work done – any work. What I proved capable of was: reading Save the Cat, which I’m planning to discuss in my science fiction and philosophy class (yes, I’m lucky like that. I get paid to teach such stuff.)

Why Save The Cat?

Well, we’ve been discussing Joseph Campbell stuff, monomyth stuff, how Star Wars conquered science fiction, and whether that might be kind of unhealthy. Save The Cat, if you don’t happen to know, gives screenwriters eye-openingly specific instructions about how to beat out a Three Act structure. I think it’s a pretty amazing book. Were I a screenwriter (we’ll get to that), I would follow Snyder’s advice about a lot of things, while shuddering at the unashamed factory discipline of it all. Were I merely an analyst (which I am), I would marvel at how you can really set your watch by this stuff. (The older daughter and I rewatched How To Train Your Dragon 2, and marveled at how perfectly it conforms to Snyder’s rules. To the minute. No surprise, since the first film was dedicated to Snyder, who helped script-doctor it along, but died during production.)

Anyway, the theme of my class is: thought-experiments. My bold hypothesis: all good science fiction stories are thought-experiments. Of course this won’t do at all, but it’s fun to be provocative like that. But: what happens when thought-experiment hits genre formula? What if Schrodinger’s Cat met Save The Cat?

Brian Aldiss: “Science fiction is the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mould”.

I joke with my students: what if someone told you to prove the Pythagorean theorem, but make it a bromance. Or: what if Newton had structured his cannonball thought-experiment as a proper technothriller, with some madman holding the world hostage!

So anyway, there I was, reading Save The Cat, all fevered. And then I took non-drowsy flu stuff too near bedtime and couldn’t sleep. So I thought: might as well just start screenwriting in my head, to get all that beat stuff down pat for class. And I kind of drifted in and out, for hours, having dreams, but structuring them like a screenplay. And when I woke up, I actually had written a kind of fever-dream science fiction thriller. My beaten brain beat it out, poor thing. I had a title and a tagline and a poster design and an elevator pitch and I knew what had to happen on p. 55. And then the ‘bad guys close in’ and … actually, it isn’t really a proper screenplay, since I was hallucinating. But, as hallucinations go, it has an amazingly solid, Three Act structure. (And you can write that on my tombstone when I die!)

So tell me about the last time you had a fever and tried to do work and hallucinated some version of your work. Wrote a crazy lecture in your mind. Whatever. Maybe later I’ll write up my screenplay proposal for your judicious consideration. Oddly enough, I remember every bit of it. I never remember my dreams.



P.M.Lawrence 11.06.14 at 3:55 am

So tell me about the last time you had a fever and tried to do work and hallucinated some version of your work. Wrote a crazy lecture in your mind. Whatever. Maybe later I’ll write up my screenplay proposal for your judicious consideration. Oddly enough, I remember every bit of it. I never remember my dreams.

I have heard that Robert Louis Stevenson’s Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde started out from just such a fever dream, which he then worked up. Also, notoriously a philosopher whose name I forget once thought he had found a deep insight in dreams, so he arranged to have a pencil and notepad handy the next time to write it down before he forgot it; it turned out to be the doggerel “Hogamus, higamus / Men are polygamous / Higamus, hogamus / Women, monogamous”.


bad Jim 11.06.14 at 4:48 am

Tom Lehrer, Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky:

I am never forget the day my first book is published.
Every chapter I stole from somewhere else.
Index I copy from old Vladivostok telephone directory.
This book, this book was sensational!
Pravda – ah, Pravda – Pravda said: …. (“It stinks”).
But Izvestia! Izvestia said: … (“It stinks”).
Metro-Goldwyn-Moskva bought the movie rights for six million rubles,
Changing title to ‘The Eternal Triangle’,
With Brigitte Bardot playing part of hypotenuse.

There was also the joke about the sons of the squaw on the hippopotamus equalling the sons of the squaws on the other two hides.


Glen Tomkins 11.06.14 at 5:03 am

I don’t know, can’t remember it all very well, interrupted by some damn visitor from Porlock.


ZM 11.06.14 at 5:12 am

Sometimes if I work on an assignment late and am engrossed I dream I work more of the assignment in my dream. This is very unfortunate because I do not feel rested upon waking up if I have dreamt about working on the assignment, as well as disappointing because I have no work to show for this waste of a pleasant sleep.


Glen Tomkins 11.06.14 at 5:17 am

I actually have made two difficult diagnoses in my career this way, by dreaming the correct answer. Both times it was this sort of state you describe, where you drift in and out, and you’re just awake enough to impose some sort of direction, and then to remember the outcome.

The problem is that you can never own up to this method in my line of work. Makes people unaccountably nervous these days to have to trust an oneiromancer to arrive at the right answer. Patients just aren’t wrapped as loose as they used to be.


Trevor 11.06.14 at 5:21 am

I had a class in college where the final project was teaching a computer to play Othello and after a couple of weeks of working on it sunup to sundown (and sometimes the reverse) I found I could no longer reliably distinguish dreams from reality. Since all I thought about was the project, all I dreamed about was the project. I would spend hours trying to fix a bug I’d remembered seeing but had in fact only dreamed about, not fixing bugs I had confidently resolved in my dreams, and eventually dreaming about wondering whether the bug I was working on was real or one I’d only dreamed of.

I write better tests now.


bad Jim 11.06.14 at 5:43 am

I’m a reasonably successful inventor, and all my ideas seem to have come from somewhere else. Limericks pop into my head without my having to craft them, as once did a scheme to print customized forms by means of a resident program peeking at video memory*, the sort of thing that would be obvious to anyone sufficiently familiar with HP’s printer control language. Either that’s just the way the mind works, or I’m possessed by a demon.

* the TSR worked only 95% of the time, and was easily replaced


bad Jim 11.06.14 at 7:59 am

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.:

I once inhaled a pretty full dose of ether, with the determination to put on record, at the earliest moment of regaining consciousness, the thought I should find uppermost in my mind. The mighty music of the triumphal march into nothingness reverberated through my brain, and filled me with a sense of infinite possibilities, which made me an archangel for the moment. The veil of eternity was lifted. The one great truth which underlies all human experience, and is the key to all the mysteries that philosophy has sought in vain to solve, flashed upon me in a sudden revelation. Henceforth all was clear: a few words had lifted my intelligence to the level of the knowledge of the cherubim. As my natural condition returned, I remembered my resolution; and, staggering to my desk, I wrote, in ill-shaped, straggling characters, the all-embracing truth still glimmering in my consciousness. The words were these (children may smile; the wise will ponder): “A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.”

Ostensibly profound insights, it would appear, are easily obtained.


Dr. Hilarius 11.06.14 at 8:38 am

Sick right now but not on sufficient drugs to do much other than make me a bit sleepy. Long ago, in grad school, I was seriously hurt in a climbing accident, had surgery and was in the hospital for several weeks on lots of narcotics. Read Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer. De Quincey had nothing on my dreams. Can’t say I got any meaningful work done.


PJW 11.06.14 at 8:53 am

Makes me think of the LSD/DNA story and also the benzene ring formula dream.


Phil 11.06.14 at 10:14 am

I “got” cultural materialism in a dream. For days afterwards I was pointing at architecture and muttering these specific formal articulations of space were embedded in, hence are ultimately in complicated ways an expression of, a whole way of life, or words to that effect.

Never did quite wear off.


J Thomas 11.06.14 at 12:29 pm

Once after I had spent several days trying to prove a topology theorem, I dreamed about it and woke up with as counterexample. In the dream it just constructed itself, and I could see it. I didn’t have a fever then, though.

Later one of my teachers, an old Polish woman, explained her experience. She kept a notebook by her bed so she could write down any insights she got in her sleep. She woke up in the night with a wonderful proof, and wrote it down, and in the morning when she looked at it it was all garbage. “You cannot do math in your sleep. You will have to work.”

In high school I read Buchbam’s Basic Ecology. It really does cover a lot of basics in ecology, and it gives provocative examples and subtly implies lots of things it does not say. I dreamed about it. In the dream, each species degrades its environment into something its own offspring can barely survive in, but usually something evolves whose offspring can grow in that environment, and they tend to take over. The current climax species are the ones that nothing has evolved to take over from yet. The species in a biome shape each other, each of them fits an ecological niche that the others largely define.

They all do better together when they have the niches sewn up tight, when there’s no room for any alien species to insert itself and claim a niche. If it succeeds at that, it changes the balance all around it and anything might possibly find itself with no viable niche after the sorting out. So the system as a whole has a sort of ghostly existence, even though it does not evolve as an entity and its collective DNA is divided among species that each suffer their own evolutionary pressures, still in the long run the pressure on all of them serves to increasingly bring the system-as-a-whole into fuller existence. Each biome is continually invaded by immigrants from all the neighboring biomes, looking for an opportunity to survive, and if the local system can’t withstand them then it must assimilate them as best it can.

It’s hard to explain. It all fit together, all the pieces for a sort of natural selection and evolution of whole ecosystems despite their having no DNA devoted to the whole, no cell membranes or dependable boundaries, small numbers of individual distinct examples to compete, etc. The whole thing only barely true, something that gradually evolves into existence, that goes in and out of focus, that becomes less real after setbacks and more real as it overcomes them.

I thought about trying to write it up and publish it, but I was pretty sure the noosphere was not ready for it. The ideas are too squishy, not enough sharp clear distinctions.


MDH 11.06.14 at 2:14 pm

This may be a well-known citation, but it seems relevant. Heuristic G22, in McGuire’s set, for “creative hypothesis generation in psychology” invites the reader, without any irony, to take drugs to alter consciousness.

McGuire, W. J. (1997). Creative hypothesis generating in psychology: Some useful
heuristics. Annual Review of Psychology 48:1-30.


jake the antisoshul soshulist 11.06.14 at 2:40 pm

@ Glen Tompkins #3 . You beat me to it. I don’t know if Coleridge had a fever, but he was definitely stoned. There was a movie whose title I can’t remember that portrayed Coleridge and Keats as some sort of proto-hippies.

@ bad jim #8. I heard that same story from a college professor 45 years ago, but it my case it was attributed to Aldous Huxley.


rea 11.06.14 at 2:56 pm

Just two nights ago, I had an extremely vivid dream about an oral argument in the courtroom of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, where I was apparently addressing panel of three federal judges (Richard Allen Griffin, Helene White, and the late Albert J. Engel) on the constitutional rights of vampires.


David 11.06.14 at 3:13 pm

For or against?


Ronan(rf) 11.06.14 at 3:15 pm

What kind of protections would the consitution provide for zombies ?


Trader Joe 11.06.14 at 3:16 pm

Based on precedent, approximately the same an unborn children.


rea 11.06.14 at 3:27 pm

For or against?

For. The argument was based on due process and freedom of religion. The main thing I remember, though, was a discussion of whether Judge Engel ought to recuse himself.


CJColucci 11.06.14 at 3:36 pm

Don’t leave us hanging, rea. Why was Judge Engel contemplating recusing himself? Vampire relatives? Or, perhaps, since he was the “late” Judge Engel when you had the dream, that he was of the undead himself?


Ronan(rf) 11.06.14 at 3:54 pm

So could feasting on the brains of the living be plausibly argued as constitutionally protected on religious grounds ? I’m not neccesarily asking would it hold up at SC level (it seems a slippery slope) but could you get away with it in the lower courts ?


rea 11.06.14 at 3:57 pm

Well, yeah, there was a discussion of the effect of his 2013 death on whether he ought to be hearing cases. (He was a real judge, and a hell of a good guy, although rather more conservative than I might have liked) (And maybe I shouldn’t have identified him by name here, since I knew him personally).


Trader Joe 11.06.14 at 4:04 pm

I’d say yes with respect to fast zombies, but for slow zombies it should be regarded as a premeditated act and therefore not protected. Even for fast zombies it wouldn’t be protected if the zombies showed racial, sexual or gender preference (disparate impact studies would no doubt be a challenge).


rea 11.06.14 at 4:08 pm

And, not to give a misleading impression, I remember the subjects of the argument but not much of the details. What was amazingly vivid was the recognizable faces of the judges, the wooden paneled walls of the courtroom, the paintings on the wall, my hands on the lectern, and the clock on the bench counting down my time. I’ve only been in that courtroom a couple of times over a period of 25 or so years . . .


Ronan(rf) 11.06.14 at 4:22 pm

22 – but surely any religious exception would have to cover fast and slow zombies? ‘The feasting on brains’ aspect is protected, the method isnt relevant ? (I can see the distinction you’re drawing here, and it’s an insightful one, but to my eyes surely it’s closer to a defence of manslaughter (in the case of fast zombies) rather than a constitutional protection ?)


Ronan(rf) 11.06.14 at 4:26 pm

..actually, i dont want to derail the thread here (although im not sure as this would qualify as a derail considering the subject matter of the OP) Ill say no more about zombies.


Trader Joe 11.06.14 at 4:29 pm

Good point. To defend the zombies I’d have to go with a very expansive version of free exercise (like the ones that preclude vaccinations and allow for handling of snakes and such) and then argue that there is no way the zombie can get a fair trial by a jury of their peers.


Jim Harrison 11.06.14 at 4:38 pm

I routinely dream up peculiar jokes. For example I had a dream in which a little boy kept turning up wherever I went. He kept asking me the same riddle: “Why did the invisible man stop using condoms.” He was relentless, but just before dawn I finally got him to give me the answer. “He wanted to become a parent.”


Brett Bellmore 11.06.14 at 5:47 pm

Well, I did spend all night once with the flu and Nyquil, designing transfer tooling to change a diaper. The fixturing was giving me trouble, babies being so squirmy.

In my experience, the problem with doing computer related work in your sleep is that hitting the save button absolutely does you no good, so it’s all wasted effort even if you were doing good work. Which you generally are not.


Friend and Retaliation 11.06.14 at 5:54 pm

I had a dream in which I was walking a wooded path and came to a fork in the path. A sign indicated a choice of “God” in one direction and “treason” in the other. The choice seemed clear—who would prefer treason to God? As I approached the sign, however, I saw that the “t” in “treason” had been hand-lettered in, and I realized that it wasn’t a “t” but a Christian cross. The true choice was between God and reason, and Christians were in the business of deceiving people. I chose the path of reason, and then I woke up, laughing at the unsubtle symbolism of my dreaming mind.

Btw, I was not, at the time, struggling with questions of faith and religion, or at least not more than I ordinarily do.


bianca steele 11.06.14 at 6:35 pm

There are other movies that follow some kind of act structure exactly: Revolutionary Road and Source Code (maybe others that rhyme too): you look at the VCR as the script chunks on to the next thing, and you see three or four zeros in a row, every time.

I’m curious about this, though: Joseph Campbell stuff, monomyth stuff, how Star Wars conquered science fiction, and whether that might be kind of unhealthy.

Unhealthy, which? Campbell or Star Wars? I ask as someone whose choice of electives, if not ultimately of major, was largely determined by an interview in an Empire Strikes Back fan magazine, in which Lucas gave inaccurate advice about the social sciences. And also because I’m reading Kate Mosse’s third Cathar novel, which is about how the Nazis go looking for the formula for the critical mass the legitimate descendant of Elizabeth I and the Earl of Oxford aka Shakespare the Ark of the Covenant a Gnostic incantation, which will enable them to build a super-weapon, because they believe all that mythos stuff proves the historical existence of the master race.


JakeB 11.06.14 at 8:57 pm

PM Lawrence–

I believe Dorothy Parker is cheerfully toasting you at the great cocktail party in heaven for referring to her as a philosopher.


phosphorious 11.06.14 at 11:18 pm

” … actually, it isn’t really a proper screenplay, since I was hallucinating.”

If it was good enough for Philip K. Dick. . .


bad Jim 11.07.14 at 6:42 am

Brett, I’ve had the same experience, except that I was trying to save my work to floppy disk, and couldn’t find one.


Z 11.07.14 at 9:15 am

Dear John,

Reading your piece was a strange experience to me, because in some sense I had already read it. So, in short you must absolutely read Do Androids prove theorems in their sleep? by Michael Harris (easily accessible by Googling the title); a very engaging essay that covers the following issues 1) How and why was one of the contributions to the Grothendieck Festschrift officially co-authored by a ghost who appeared in a dream? 2) Why mathematical articles are genre literature, usually of the medieval quest kind, complete with beats by beats decomposition in the sense of Snyder (and why the proof of some theorems, though not Pythagoras’s, are indeed bromance) 3) Are dreams narrative, and if so what kind of narratives are they?

Bonus points include references to Pynchon, X-Men and Dick (of course) as well as Aristotle Poetics.

I’m not going to lie to you, it might be a hard read for a non-mathematician, though the official aim is to show the narrative structure independently of the mathematical content, so it should in principle be accessible. Do read it!


bianca steele 11.07.14 at 2:42 pm

Gee, my own cold was better until about an hour after I posted to this thread.

Last night I dreamed about tea. My guest wanted black tea, which I’d just used or thrown out or something, but I was happy because I found some Darjeeling. I don’t think that’s right, but in my dream it was.

I used to dream about Tetris . . .


Peter Erwin 11.07.14 at 3:12 pm

I joke with my students: what if someone told you to prove the Pythagorean theorem, but make it a bromance. Or: what if Newton had structured his cannonball thought-experiment as a proper technothriller, with some madman holding the world hostage!

There’s always the (probably apocryphal) story about the first proof of the existence of irrational numbers, in which a group of Pythagoreans traveling on a ship are so horrified when one of them comes up with the proof that they throw him into the sea to drown…


Lindsay Berge 11.08.14 at 11:57 am

Perhaps tangential to the topic but related to the structure of Star Wars is Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (original Japanese title: Kakushi Toride No San Akunin) which appears to hold a remarkable resemblance to the first Star Wars film.
I strongly recommend it if you have not seen it.


Anarcissie 11.10.14 at 3:02 pm

This thread does not seem to have caused much excitement. However, I have gotten two important things out of it: Save The Cat and Do Androids Prove Theorems in their Sleep. In the former case, I find the strict formalization of screen plays fascinating and have been discussing it with a person who knows far more about the movies than I. She doesn’t think all successful big-ticket movies always follow the formula, but the fact that people in the industry believe it does is important even if it isn’t so. In the case of Androids, not being a mathematician, I just let the math wash over me. It has a kind of poetry to it; as if you were hearing a poem in an only partially known language and could perceive the patterns assembling and rising and falling apart and assembling again without necessarily understanding the narrative, the allusions, or the donnée. I read math for the poetry. And the fizz. Sometimes I get a glimpse. Anyway, by the time I come to any conclusions about these things you all will be long gone, but I thank you for providing them.

I have always used dreams as raw material for fiction, but I imagine ‘everybody’ does that.

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